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Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?

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  • David S. Bratman
    ... As I put it in a review once, Tolkien s gold, like the fairies , turns to dust when it is stolen away. It is possible, though, to use Tolkien s gold
    Message 1 of 16 , May 8, 2001
      At 12:50 PM 5/6/2001 , Wendell wrote:

      >I think that there's another problem though. Too many fantasy authors steal
      >plot devices from Tolkien without understanding what the point of those plot
      >devices were for Tolkien.

      As I put it in a review once, "Tolkien's gold, like the fairies', turns to
      dust when it is stolen away." It is possible, though, to use Tolkien's
      gold without stealing it at all: in Brian Attebery's estimation (and mine),
      Le Guin's Earthsea is the most successful example of this. (Has everyone
      seen the new book, _Tales from Earthsea_, by the way?)

      >So sometimes I find myself putting down a work for stealing
      >and misunderstanding plot ideas from other works and sometimes I find myself
      >praising a work for stealing its general structure from other works in a more
      >artful fashion. I wonder then if I'm being consistent or if I'm merely
      >making my criticism arbitrarily fit whatever intuitive feeling I have about a

      Maybe you are. But it's more likely that your intuitive feeling is telling
      you something important that your intellect is merely trying to analyze
      afterwards. There is no point in evolving a personal criteria of literary
      quality unless it helps explain what you like and dislike, and why. All my
      own high-flown theories of what is good or bad in fantasy I've derived
      inductively, by reading books and noting what works and what doesn't. To
      create a theory of what's good and apply it rigidly, describing books as
      good or bad by means of this pre-existing theory in isolation of whether
      you liked them or not - that would be the worst sort of criticism.

      >I discuss the problems of filmmakers trying to make a film noir-type movie
      >without really understanding what the point of film noir is. You can't have
      >a film noir end with a blazing shoot-out in which the hero triumphs (that's
      >an action film) or an ending in which a flawed hero is disappointed but
      >resolves to become a better person (that's a sitcom with a moral at the end).
      > Film noir is about the lack of trust in society. Such a film can only end
      >with evil triumphant because the supposed hero was never anything but a
      >patsy, or with everybody dead, or with a naive innocent surviving because
      >everyone else has killed each other off, or with a hero surviving but no
      >happier because no one trusts him. Film noir isn't about conventional happy
      >endings, and any supposed film noir that ends with one has missed the point.
      >... A fantasy author who
      >says that he admires Tolkien but who then writes a novel supposedly in the
      >tradition of Tolkien, except that the novel ends with the equivalent
      >character to Frodo becoming rich, getting married, becoming king, and living
      >happily ever after, has completely missed the point of _The Lord of the

      There's another possibility, though I admit it doesn't actually happen very
      often. The author or filmmaker could be trying to do something different,
      by playing on your expectations for the genre and then subverting them.
      (The term "deconstruction" is sometimes loosely used to describe this.)
      _Tehanu_ certainly subverted most readers' expectations for a fourth
      Earthsea book, but it was clear that the author was retroactively
      reimagining the entire premise, rather than merely failing to understand
      what she had created. I don't know whether the makers of _L.A.
      Confidential_ thought they were making a film noir or not. But there's no
      law that says they can't make a film that starts out looking like a film
      noir and then turning into something else. And if the less perceptive
      critics keep calling such a film a film noir, that's not the film's fault.
      I thought _L.A. Confidential_'s ending had more problems with sheer
      believability than whether it fit into the conventions of the rest of the film.

      David Bratman
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